by Frank Vespe
Maryland Million president Jim Steele wanted to make one thing perfectly clear when he rose to speak at yesterday’s Maryland Million draw: his name’s not Jimmy.
Moments later, trainer King Leatherbury answered Gabby Gaudet’s question about… well, about something involving horse racing, with a joke that went more or less as follows:
A horse trainer walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder. The bartender says, “Where’d you get that thing?”
The parrot replies, “Over at Laurel Park. There must be 30 of them over there.”
King then wondered, “What was your question again?”
It was that sort of lighthearted afternoon at Laurel Park, and why not? Maryland Million day’s one of Maryland’s biggest and best racing days, and the day of the draw is one on which everyone’s a winner, until further notice.
Still and all, there was something of an undercurrent of melancholy over the proceedings, as well. Two of the best local runners of recent vintage, Leatherbury’s Ben’s Cat and Tim Keefe trainee Eighttofasttocatch, are getting up there in years and mileage. Eighttofasttocatch has two more races on his dance card, including Saturday’s Classic; and while there’s no set timetable for the Cat (and, to date, no need to think of retirement), eight-year-olds still running at the top of their game are rare as 99-1 winners.
“That’s the amazing thing — up until his last race — his last race was off,” said Leatherbury, of Ben’s Cat. “His other races, he just consistently ran zeroes” on the Thorograph numbers, which is to say, very fast.
But in his last, the Laurel Dash, Ben’s Cat, a strong favorite, had dead aim at the leaders but couldn’t bridge the gap and settled for third. “That worried me a little bit,” admitted Leatherbury. “He had no excuse whatsoever. he had a clear shot, asked him, and he just didn’t have it.”
Up until then, the trainer maintains that his horse, who’s earned nearly $2.2 million, was running as well this year as he had at five. He’ll likely be the chalk in Saturday’s Turf, a race in which he finished second a year ago, and a win would make him the first horse to win four Maryland Million races.
One race later, Eighttofasttocatch will go off as a solid favorite to win his second straight Classic and his third in the last four years. That would make him the first three-time winner of the Classic.
But either way, it’ll be somewhat bittersweet for Keefe, who calls the horse the best he’s ever trained. Eighttofasttocatch, who is also eight years old, has won 15 career races and more than $900,000.
“This was the first horse I ever picked out for Arnie,” Keefe said, referring to Arnold Heft, who died in March.
“I just liked the looks of him,” Keefe continued. “He was kinda immature-looking, kind of a gawky looking yearling, but it looked like he had all the right pieces. I loved the way he walked, I loved the expressionn on his face. Something just drew me to him. I have always really liked him.”
And why not? The horse named for a hockey player (Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals) has run the way his numbersake plays puck: very fast, and very forward, and with a great deal of success.
Eighttofasttocatch will attempt to become the first three-time winner of the Classic on Saturday. Then he has one more date, at the Jennings Handicap in November, where a win would enable him to surpass Little Bold John as the only four-time winner of that event.
Then retirement, perhaps a second career as a jumper or event horse.
“I get a little emotional sometimes, especially about this,” said Keefe. “It would be very significant for him not just to win the race, but the fact that it’s getting closer to his retirement now.”
Eighttofasttocatch will likely grab the early lead and try to take the field all the way around in the nine-furlong classic. Likewise, in the one-mile Turf, Ben’s Cat will likely be forwardly placed, perhaps just off the early leaders.
“He’s going to show speed, and he’s going to be weakening at the end,” Leatherbury predicted of Ben’s Cat, which generally is the way it goes, in individual races and in full careers.
But as the draw began to die down, the octogenarian trainer wasn’t much interested in looking too far ahead, or back.
“Sometimes, these things can be so boring,” he said with a laugh. “Drawing a race, what can be more boring?”